Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Les-Miserables-Poster1

I’m sorry, but Les Misérables is overrated. Or perhaps more accurately, it just wasn’t for me.

Director Tom Hooper, coming off his 2011 Oscars triumph with The King’s Speech, appeared to have a winner on his hands. One of the most beloved musicals of all-time. The likable singing and dancing Hugh Jackman as the protagonist Jean Valjean. Probably the hottest actress on the planet right now, Anne Hathaway, to play poor Fantine and sing the classic “I Dreamed a Dream.” Amanda Seyfried. Russell Crowe. Even Helena Bonham Carter and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen). It was a sure hit and an Oscar certainty.

But Les Misérables ended up getting mixed reviews from critics, and I find myself siding with those who didn’t fall for its charm. Those who love the musical will love this film no matter what, but I  personally found it to be an exhausting and often dull experience that I couldn’t really get into until it was almost over. Technically, the film is supposedly quite a remarkable achievement, with spectacular sets, strong performances and a lot of long single takes and live singing (rather than recorded in post-production like most other musicals). But really, who cares about all of that if the film isn’t any good in the end?

I had never seen a stage production of the musical so I’ll assume there are others who aren’t familiar with the plot. The story is set in 1815 and Jackman’s Valjean is a thief who is paroled by Crowe’s ruthless prison guard Javert after years of imprisonment. Basically, Valjean decides to turn his life around and be a good guy and Javert can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s a miserable time to be alive (hence the title) and the remainder of the film focuses on the struggles of the masses, Jackman trying to be good, and Crowe not letting him. It goes on for years and years.

The biggest problem with Les Misérables is that 99.9% of all vocal interactions between characters is sung. There is essentially no dialogue except a stray word here or there. As a result, we get a lot of long singing monologues where we have to listen really carefully to the lyrics (which is not always clear) just to figure out what the heck is going on.

That can get annoying and takes time to get used to, but fine, it’s a musical, so I get that. What bothered me more was that most of this talk-singing was awful to listen to. Not that the actors’ voices were bad — it’s just that there’s no real tune or melody. It just sounds like a bunch of people playing a lame game where they have to sing everything and are making up the tune as they go along. It’s really monotonous and challenges the audience not to tune out, so to speak, after a little while.

Yes, there is a handful of REAL musical numbers that are pretty good, with Hathaway’s much-lauded “I Dreamed a Dream” number being the highlight, as well as Carter and Borat’s “Master of the House” (which I was familiar with through that Seinfeld episode with Elaine’s dad and Jerry’s inside-out coat), but these are few and far in between. The vast majority of the film was dominated by this crappy talk-singing or sing-talking and I just could not stand it.

The performances were good, I’ll admit that, but was Hathaway’s performance really that good? Oscar-favourite good? I personally think it’s a little overrated, especially considering (spoiler alert!)  she only has a few minutes of screen time. Then again, Judi Dench won for something like 9 minutes of acting in Shakespeare in Love, so why the heck not?

I do, on the other hand, have to defend Russell Crowe a little bit here. Crowe has been panned for his singing, but I thought he was perfectly adequate. A little wooden, perhaps, but he’s freaking Pavarotti compared to Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia.

Anyway, Les Misérables turned out to be a huge disappointment. It probably would have been great as a stage show, and Hooper has basically shot an extravagant stage show on film, but that’s why we have different media formats. I finally got into the story and the characters towards the latter part of the film’s third act, but by then it was too little too late.

2 stars out of 5

PS: Dang, the trailer made the film look so awesome. If only it really was.

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 7)

December 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I think we’re slowly getting there, but there are still a few more installments to come in what feels like a never-ending movie blitz.

Melancholia (2011)

Lars von Trier makes some strange films, and Melancholia is one of them. To be honest, had I watched this film a few years ago I would have categorised it as another contrived arty farty film that bores with pretentious pretty images and little substance, but I guess as I get older I am starting to appreciate these kind of things better.

I’m not sure if this is a spoiler but Melancholia is actually an apocalypse movie. Well, it’s actually a family drama disguised as an apocalypse movie, so don’t expect to see any asteroids or Bruce Willis blowing stuff up. The first half is set at Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard’s dysfunctional wedding, where a lot of melodrama happens, and the second half is about the aftermath and how they deal with their impending doom.

I’ll admit, there is some interesting stuff here. The film is lovely to look at and full of, um, melancholy, as the title suggests, and Kirsten Dunst has arguably never been better as the depressed bride. But it’s not really my type of movie, and there is a lotta fluff. I mean, can we really say it’s not gratuitous to have a naked Kirsten Dunst laying on the grass under the moonlight? Not that I’m complaining, but still.

3 out of 5

One Day (2011)

One depressing film to the next. One Day is based on the book of the same title by David Nicholls and focuses on the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess, not the serial killer), following them every day on July 15 from 1988 to 2011.

That sounds like an interesting idea for a novel but a potentially and brutally boring one for a movie if handled poorly. Fortunately, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) has enough tricks up her sleeve to keep the film compelling enough to keep me intrigued for the majority of its 108-minute running time. The dialogue is crisp and the chemistry between the two leads, powered by strong performances, feels genuine, although Hathway’s accent has apparently been criticised for its inconsistency.

On the other hand, there is the unavoidable monotony of the film’s structure and the occasionally strained melodrama that is more infuriating than romantic. I have to admit that the ending got to me, which was surprising because I didn’t really believe I cared about the characters until then.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Whistleblower (2011)

The Whistleblower tells the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a US police officer who goes to post-war Bosnia to work for a security company under the UN where she discovers a shocking human trafficking ring. When she tries to lift the lid on the crimes she finds herself being stifled by the UN at every turn because it does not want to lose its lucrative security contracts.

I was really captivated by this powerful film from start to finish, although I suspect it was more the harrowing subject matter than anything else. It’s revolting what some people would do to make a buck and watching officials perpetrate abuse against the very people they were paid to protect is deeply disturbing.

This bleak but inspiring film is driven by a super performance from Rachel Weisz, even if she is far too pretty to play the role. In many ways, it’s a typical woman-against-the-system type of movie, but I found it surprisingly effective due to the sense of paranoia and frustration created by debut Canadian director Larysa Kondracki. I’d definitely recommend catching this on DVD if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

50/50 (2011)

Seth Rogen movies are often hit and miss for me, but 50/50 might very well be the best Seth Rogen movie ever because he’s only a supporting character. Thankfully, 50/50 is dominated by the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who continues to demonstrate his range as Adam, a 27-year-old who finds out that he has cancer. The film is based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser and is directed by Jonathan Levine, who has done a bunch of films I’ve never heard of people.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of comedy dramas, or dramedies, as they are known, because they tend to be stuck painfully in the middle by being neither truly funny nor dramatic. But if they’re all like 50/50 then maybe I would have loved them from the beginning.

This is a real eye-opener and crowd-pleaser that manages to be both genuinely funny and moving. How people deal with cancer is an interesting area that is seldom attempted in cinema, let alone a young man who has his entire life ahead of him, with all those hopes and dreams waiting to be fulfilled. You would think it’s destined to be a bleak film or a disturbing black comedy, but 50/50 reflects life and all its amusing complications and contradictions far better than anyone could have expected.

Perhaps the film works so well is because it contains jokes that worked in reality. I know the fact it’s a true story is likely to be the reason why Rogen shines as Adam’s best friend, because he played the same role in real life to Reiser. He essentially plays himself, generally insensitive, crass and vulgar, but shows flashes of humanity and decency when he needs to. He’s funny in doses but doesn’t annoy, which is when he’s at his best. Rogen should consider retiring right here because it’s unlikely he’ll ever top this performance.

This is a thought-provoking, sweet and touching film that’s as good as any comedy or drama I’ve seen this year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

July 24, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Notwithstanding its less than ingenious title, The Dark Knight Rises is everything fans of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy could have hoped for. It is every bit as satisfying as the finales for other film series in recent times, such as Return of the King and Harry Potter 7. For me, it is right up there with The Dark Knight, The Avengers and the first Ironman as the best superhero movie of all-time. It is without a doubt the most EPIC.

The Dark Knight Rises takes place 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight (which is fair enough when you consider that Batman Begins was released in 2005). Batman has not appeared inGotham city since he took the fall for the death of Harvey Dent/Two-Face in order to preserve the former district attorney’s pristine legacy, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled recluse. But as Selina Kyle (Catwoman) says, “a storm is coming”, and we all know it won’t be long beforeWayne is forced to don his famous black suit once more. But will it be enough? (And trust me, this film will make you question it).

Christopher Nolan clearly went all out for The Dark Knight Rises. After the success of The Dark Knight, expectations sky-rocketed and the pressure was on to deliver in the concluding chapter. So Nolan and his brother Jonathan upped the ante on everything:

  • An intricate and ambitious plot that links all three films together and is loaded with back stories, emotional confrontations and twists and turns.
  • An enormous cast of characters, some old and some new, and many of whom have substantial roles and screen time.
  • One of the most physically imposing villains ever in Bane.
  • Fight scenes and battle sequences so mammoth in scale and intensity that it dwarfs anything and everything that has been done in the series.
  • Even the running time of 165 minutes sets a new record (Batman Begins was 140 minutes; The Dark Knight was 152 minutes).

So does bigger and longer necessarily mean better? Not always, but in this case the sheer epic-ness of the film certainly goes a long way in making up for its miscues. On the whole, The Dark Knight is probably still the most “complete” film of the series, but when placed in context, The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the most satisfying.

In my humble opinion, and I know it’s probably an unpopular one, Tom Hardy’s Bane is every bit as worthy of a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker. For starters, Hardy’s physical transformation was astounding. It’s crazy to think that this was the same guy that I recently saw in This Means War. Even his physique in Warrior did not come close. The Joker was a mad dog, a psychopath, a switchblade that can cut you up in a lot of ways; Bane, by contrast, is calm, calculated, and a brutal physical specimen capable of tossing Batman around like a ragged doll. He’s a nuclear warhead.

The spectacular first scenes of the film introducing us to Bane set the tone so perfectly. It’s one of the most exciting sequences of the entire trilogy and reminded me a lot of the best Nolan’s Inception had to offer.

There are two other Inception cast members to make the jump to Gotham city. Marion Cotillard plays the lovely Miranda Tate, an executive of the Wayne Enterprises board who becomes the key to saving the company. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of my favourite actors and one of Hollywood’s most versatile (I mean, come on, Brick, 500 Days of Summer, Hesher and now this?), plays passionate young cop John Blake. He is the standout of the film, along with….

Anne Hathaway, who really surprised me as Selina Kyle, the master thief better known as Catwoman. I’ve always been a bit on the fence with Hathaway and felt she was a little overrated as an actress, but man, she nailed this one. Not just physically – the performance itself was brilliant, providing a much-needed exuberance and vitality to an otherwise intensely “dark” film.

The rest of the returning cast was also stellar. I can’t believe I haven’t even mentioned Christian Bale yet. There’s isn’t much to say except that he’ll likely go down in history as the best Batman ever. Not bad for a guy who has also been Patrick Bateman, John Connor, Dicky Eklund and The Machinist.

Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman; plus a few cameos from the big names from the two earlier films (sadly, of course, except Heath Ledger) – that is a ridiculous cast, and it amazes me that it never felt like they would overshadow or be a distraction to the film.

The only obvious weak links in the cast are two dudes I ordinarily love: Matthew Modine’s deputy police chief, who was responsible for much of the film’s clunky dialogue and lack of subtlety (I still love him; I mean, come on: Full Metal Jacket, Birdy, Married to the Mob, Memphis Belle, Pacific Heights), and Aussie Ben Mendelsohn, who was somewhat awkward and over-the-top as Wayne’s corrupt business rival.

I have a few other relatively minor complaints. After watching The Dark Knight Rises I went back and rewatched the first two films in the trilogy, and realized that they employed a lot more humour – something that was sorely missing in The Dark Knight Rises. The other thing I noticed was that Batman had more cool gadgets and made better use of his utility belt in the earlier films – in this one all the attention was on the Batplane.

If you really want to get picky, I suppose there were parts in the second act that felt plodding, but the same probably could be said for all three films in the series. All is forgotten by the time the epic third act rolls around in any case.

By the way, many of the plot points don’t make a whole lot of sense if you really think about it. But hey, this is a superhero movie about a guy dressed up as a bat, so suspension of disbelief should have been a prerequisite. And I’m sick of people trying to read into and getting caught up in the film’s supposed political and societal messages – why can’t people just enjoy a Batman movie for what it is? Please, no more September 11 analogies.

The Dark Knight Rises is far from perfect, but it’s one of those films where I just went, “stuff this, I just want to enjoy it.” Strictly speaking, it’s probably not a 5-star film, but what the heck.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: I wouldn’t recommend it if you haven’t seen the movie yet, but if you have, check out this awesome featurette.

Thoughts on the 2011 Oscars

March 1, 2011 in Entertainment, Misc

The winning actors!

I’m was pretty excited about the Oscars this year (because I’m a huge movie buff), but let’s face it, it’s usually long, boring and extremely predictable (particularly in the major categories) — thus ultimately disappointing.  Last night’s ceremony was no different.

Allow me to throw some random thoughts out there.  Let me just be clear — no matter how much I bash the Oscars, I still enjoy it and I’ll still watch it every year.

The Opening

The opening sequence is usually the most entertaining part of the night, and things usually go downhill from there.  This year they put the hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, into clips of almost all of the Best Picture nominees (via an Inception-esque dream invasion courtesy of Mr Alec Baldwin and a tribute to Back to the Future), and the result was pretty hilarious.  Obviously it’s never as good as Billy Crystal’s ones from back in the day, or even as good as some of the MTV Movie Award ones, but it was good enough.

I couldn’t find any good quality clips but this is the best I could do.

The Hosts

Neither Hathaway or Franco were particularly outstanding (both were safe choices that appealed to younger audiences) — but I’m going to go out on a limb here and against the current — I liked Franco better!

Yes, the Franco that looked and acted like he was stoned the entire night and churned out his lines like he didn’t give a crap!

To me, Hathaway was chirpy and lively but she tried too hard.  I don’t know why, but there was just something about her that didn’t feel genuine.

On the other hand, Franco was just chilled out and mellow, almost like he was bored and thought the whole self-congratulatory ceremony was a big ego trip and a waste of his time.  For some reason it worked for me.

And how great was Franco’s grandma and Marky Mark?

The Outfits

I’m no fashion guru, but all the Aussie fashion experts I’ve been hearing on the radio here are proclaiming that Cate Blanchett’s outfit was the best of the night.  I thought it was the worst.  Judge for yourself.

There are lots of beautiful people in Hollywood, so to me, the high marks on this night should go to those who elevate themselves beyond how they normally look.  Sure, Halle Berry looked very nice in her dress last night, but she looks great all the time, so what’s the big deal?

So for me, the most impressive looks of the night came from young Hailee Steinfeld and Jennifer Lawrence.  Both looked so ugly/average in their respective award-nominated films but were stunning on the red carpet.  See below.

Hailee Steinfeld

Jennifer Lawrence

Kirk Douglass

Funny but for all the wrong reasons.

Corey Haim

Speaking of the in memoriam section of the show, where the heck was Corey Haim?  Come on.  That’s even a bigger snub than Christopher Nolan not getting nominated for Best Director for Inception.

The Musical Montage

Probably inspired by the Antoine Dodson Bed Intruder song — pretty good, especially the Twilight bit.  See both below.

The Awards and the Winners

The full list of winners is here.

I’ve already said this, but I’m disappointed The Social Network didn’t get Best Picture.  I knew Inception (the real Best Picture) didn’t have a chance and it was a two horse race, so I was rooting for the Facebook movie to take out the top gong despite The King’s Speech having all the momentum going in.

When Tom Hooper took out the Best Director, I knew it was all over.  Darn it.  Mark my word — The Social Network and Inception will both be better remembered than The King’s Speech years down the track.

As for the rest of the winners?  Glad Aaron Sorkin won.  Glad Christian Bale won (though any of the other nominees would be a deserving winner).  Melissa Leo was/is crazy and probably had the worst acceptance speech of the night, but nevertheless a deserving winner.  I am now desperate to see Inside Job and In a Better World (and I’ll be see a screening of Biutiful later this week).  Good to see Inception win the technical awards but I can’t believe Wolfman won for best make-up.  That’s my winner’s rant.

Final Thoughts

A fairly ‘meh’ year at the Oscars, though the nominated films were excellent and a step above last year’s.  Doubt we’ll see Hathaway and Franco host again.  Who will they get next year?  I have no idea, but whoever it is, it’ll be interesting.

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

March 6, 2010 in Movie Reviews

I just got back from watching Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, considered an “extension” of the Lewis Carroll novels “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”.  In 3D, of course.

The story needs no introduction, but keep in mind that it is not a direct adaption, not even a re-imagining, so while there are familiar elements and characters, not everything will be expected.

Visually and stylistically, it’s almost as impressive as anything I’ve seen from Tim Burton (I’d probably still say Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow were better).  The CGI is blended in seamlessly with the live action actors, led by Australian Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen.

As for whether the film itself was any good, well…it started off well, but after a strong introduction, Alice in Wonderland lost a lot of that initial intrigue and excitement.  It may have coincided with the appearance of Depp’s Mad Hatter, who was given a much bigger and more important role than expected.

I could tell Burton was hoping for more of an emotional connection through the relationship between Alice and the Hatter, but I don’t think he succeeded.  For once, I think seeing more of Johnny Depp actually made the film less interesting.  Blasphemous?

As for the others, Mia Wasikowska was a pretty standard heroine, not bad but not oozing with star power either.  Anne Hathaway, covered in goth-like make-up, was the ugliest I have ever seen her.  And Helena Bonham Carter, with her massively over-sized head, was my favourite character (and not a terribly horrible one for a villain either).

Anyway, I thought Alice in Wonderland was okay.  Good but could have been better.  It was a visual feast and about half of the 109-minute running time was pretty fascinating.  At times it was amusing and exciting (and even a little scary), but on the whole, not particularly entertaining by Burton’s usual high standards, and a film that got progressively weaker towards the end, including a pedestrian climax.

3 stars out of 5!

[PS: the 3D was good but to be honest I didn’t feel like it made a huge difference to the overall experience.]

 
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